Nearly a decade has passed since the start of the Great Recession, and higher education has yet to fully recover.
According to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state support for public two-year and four-year colleges is still nearly $9 billion below the 2008 level (adjusted for inflation).
That’s a substantial gap that states are unlikely to close any time soon, if ever.
“At a time when the benefit of a college education has never been greater,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities writes in its report, “state policymakers have made going to college less affordable and less accessible to the students most in need.”
This gap is probably a good indicator of where public higher education is headed. We have entered an era of austerity from which it may never recover.
Despite the economic recovery since the Great Recession, the new normal for public higher education appears to be shifting from the idea of public higher education as a “public good” — a relatively new idea in the history of higher ed — to the more traditional, if less democratic, notion that college education is a private benefit.
Was it ever a public good in the first place?
There are plenty of academics and pundits who will argue that higher education should be a public good, and lament the good old days when it was. Lynn Pasquerella of the Association of American College and Universities falls into this camp. Her Washington Post op-ed from last fall proclaims a college education as “once inextricably linked to the American Dream” but now unmoored and perceived as “purely private benefit rather than a good for all.”
On the opposite end are writers like Preston Cooper, whose recent Forbes piece claims that “higher education is unambiguously not a public good” and, despite the economics-class jargon that peppers his essay, lays out a solid case again the public good camp. The military, lighthouses and asteroid deflection programs are all public goods, he says, because every U.S. citizen benefits from these services whether they pay for them or not.
Cooper’s view, which I am agreeing with more and more these days, is that people are confused when they discuss higher education as a public good. That’s because they’re really talking about higher ed’s (jargon alert) positive externalities.
“A positive externality,” he writes, “occurs when a good benefits society at large in addition to the good’s consumer. As the argument runs, people who earn college degrees increase their own earnings, but earning those degrees also has beneficial impacts on other people.”
Whether a public good or a private benefit, it’s clear that states, strapped for cash and constrained by tax policies, are likely to continue to divest from public higher education. As a result, public institutions will become more dependent on tuition. (Unless their hands are tied by state law, as is the case here in Missouri.)
The idea of a college education being a public good is being replaced by the notion of it being a private benefit, available only to those who can afford it.
The public good idea arose during the post-World War II era, when the GI Bill and federal investments in research (which gave rise to the military-industrial-academic complex gaining prominence in research universities), along with strong state support, gave higher education a more public face and public purpose. Returning war veterans were gaining an education and college professors and students were creating new knowledge and technology through their research and scholarship. The public viewed a college degree as a ticket to upward mobility.
But much has changed since the higher ed heyday of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The Great Recession was a tipping point. Overextended colleges and universities had to learn to do more with less from the state, and shifted the cost burden, as much as possible, to students.
Meanwhile, an ideological shift occurred, as conservative-leaning Americans began to see college as a less-than-positive force in our culture.
“Republicans have grown increasingly negative about the impact of colleges and universities on the United States,” reported the Pew Research Center in a recent study. And with conservatives gaining seats in state legislatures and governorships, chances are likely that this suspicious view of higher education will continue.
Plus, states are strapped for cash, and legislators are limited in how they can use what funds they have. At the state level, funding for higher education is usually in the pot named “general revenue,” and that’s the pot legislators draw from when they need to balance budgets.
All of which spells doom for the notion of higher education as a public good.
Marketing the new normal
So, once we come to terms with this shift, the question for communications professionals in higher education is: How do we talk about our institutions now? How do we convey the value of higher education not as a public good, but as a private benefit?
Perhaps there’s a middle ground here. Perhaps we should borrow the perspective of Cooper, the Forbes scribe, and talk about the “public benefits” of higher education — those “positive externalities.”
We just need to come up with a more elegant term. But we’re higher ed marketers and communicators. If we can’t do that, who can?